“Out of Step: Narrative Structure, Agency, and the Hollywood Black Dance Sequence”
Peter Labuza (USC Cinema and Media Studies)
Through the 1930s, African Americans struggled to get a foothold in Hollywood. Many found employment opportunity as extras, often in subservient and submissive roles. However, many received roles as dancers, and many sequences highlighted black culture that was otherwise absent from screens. This paper analyzes the trope of the “black dance sequence” as a structural narrative device in white Hollywood films both past and present. These short sequences often appeared in a variety of genres through the 1930s as a form of excess, enacting a type of anti-narrative play by breaking away from the goal-oriented white characters. However, they also created complicated histories of erasures—performers often received no credit for their work, and they were rarely mentioned in publicity or reviews.
Part of this erasure can be attributed to the role of narrative structure in either limiting or creating spaces of agency; three test cases of the black dance sequence explore the possibilities. Now I’ll Tell (Fox Film Corporation, 1934) provides an exemplary case of the common Classical Hollywood usage, where the goal of the black dance sequence is only as brief spectacle entirely outside the narrative. In Hellzapoppin’ (Universal Pictures, 1941), the use of the black dance sequences disrupts the narrative and deconstructs the bit parts of the performers, though only possible through a film that self-consciously rejects classical narrative. Finally, I turn to Magic Mike XXL (Warner Bros., 2014), which harkens back to the tradition of the black dance sequence of the 1930s. However, XXL complicates questions of viewership through an “integration narrative” alongside the use of audience participation and digital cinematography. This paper thus employs a neo-formalist analysis to examine how the very structures of mainstream media are inherently linked to creating spaces of play with the potential for agency.
Peter Labuza is a PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California, where he researches the developments of New Hollywood through corporate changes in governance structures and legal agreements in the 1950s and 1960s. He has published in Mediascape, Spectator, Sight & Sound, and The LA Review of Books, serves as an editor for the DVD label Masters of Cinema, and is the host of The Cinephiliacs podcast. He holds an M.A. and B.A. in Film Studies from Columbia University.
“Spectacle at Play: Virtuosity and The Promise of Interactivity in Online Game Streaming”
Aaron Doughty (The New School)
“Spectacle at Play: Virtuosity and The Promise of Interactivity in Online Game Streaming” uses Twitch as a case study to explore how play is enacted at multiple levels through streaming and how the interfaces associated with streaming tend to appropriate play within neoliberal production. Twitch is a platform through which players broadcast themselves playing games for the entertainment of viewers who, in turn, contribute to the stream through an integrated live text chat and donation system. As broadcasted content, streams effectively incorporate gaming’s proclivity to elicit muscle memory, strategic experimentation, and the satisfaction of mastery into the production of spectacle hinging upon interpersonal exchange and the chance of celebrity.
This presentation suggests that neoliberal play can best be understood as a form of general intellect exploitable through gamic interfaces. The theoretical framework employed draws on Karl Marx’s analysis of the tension between generation of surplus value and leisure time, Paolo Virno’s work on virtuosity as the epicenter of post-Fordist labor, Maurizio Lazzarato’s reading of machinic enslavement, Jodi Dean’s examination of affective networks which integrate user enjoyment as an input, and Alex Galloway’s analysis of interfaces as political. At the level of interfaces, streaming rewards diligent users’ creativity and mastery in key representational elements progress bars, experience points, and viewer counts while blackboxing machinic elements algorithms, databases, and networks. This duality guides players between game and the expansive societal metagame of neoliberalism wherein the player doubles as a laborer. Streaming provides an avenue through which play fulfills the demands of player enjoyment and self-realization while also producing surplus value through user-driven content but only inasmuch as these interfaces also depoliticize the act of play as code becomes of the arbitrator of meaningful user interactivity.
Aaron Doughty is a researcher, scholar, and writer whose work addresses the ruptures between play and productivity as structured by neoliberal capitalism. His work is located within the fields of game studies, postFordist labor studies, and critical theory. He recently received his MA in Media Studies from the The New School and is hoping pursue Ph.D. in the near future.
The Play that (Poly-Sensorially) Binds: Tracing Immersive Theater Adaptations and Catharsis
Betsy Sullivan (USC English)
Poly-sensorial immersive theater adaptations such as Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, Third Rail Production’s Then She Fell and Sweet & Lucky, and This is the Wilderness’ The Day Shall Declare It provide rich material through which to study decentralized authorship, interpersonal relationships, and the ever-shifting concepts of space and place. By using such prominent literary and historical figures as Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll and Tennessee Williams through which to explore the field of immersive theater, I wonder: does a theater riff on canonical works to give a genre credence, or is there something innately compelling about re-doing and re-living the classics with our own bodies? Furthermore, without a canonical narrative to anchor the phantasmagoric dramatic form, does immersive theater simply become performance art? Immersive theater extends beyond watching a narrative coupled with spectacle and hoping for a finale pinned to a pleasurable catharsis: immersive theater depends upon the audience to enact the narrative, create the spectacle, and willingly surrender to her own personal catharsis during the course of the performance. Ultimately, I believe that the immersive genre begets deeper, richer cathartic experiences that could ultimately provide inroads to a revisionist reading of Aristotle’s catharsis for our current techno-cultural climate.
Bio: I am interested in new media adaptations of Shakespearean works and, in particular, how these parent texts and adaptations haunt one other retroactively via audience reception and interpretation. I am pursuing a doctorate in the English department of University of Southern California as well as an ancillary graduate certificate through USC’s Media Arts + Practices.
Virtual Healing: Violence and ‘Sourcery’ in Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy
Sasha Crawford-Holland (USC Cinema and Media Studies)
Critics were quick to recognize new ‘immersive’ virtual reality platforms as technologies that would expand film form. Head-mounted displays have become regular features of film festivals, conferences, and galleries, and have transformed cinema’s viewers into users. However, beyond the spheres of art and entertainment, the same technologies are also being enlisted into institutional functions.
My paper analyzes the military use of Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) to treat combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder. In this model of psychotherapy, patients don a head-mounted display and enter a virtual environment designed to incarnate their triggering memories. The goal is for patients to re-experience their traumata cathartically until some form of closure is achieved. VRET is a perplexing practice because it yields a media object that is at once an event, a game, a memory, a reenactment, and a photographic record of the psychotherapeutic process. It is simultaneously a disciplinary method, and an interactive media environment that colonizes perception at the level of interface, positing the subject’s psyche as a territory to be armed, conditioned, and defended.
In this paper, I analyze the mechanisms of signification at work in the VRET image to find that it installs an illusion of agency in the patient-user. I argue that this illusion obfuscates the different moral conditions by which the virtual environment is structured. In examining the technologically and aesthetically mediated relationship between hardware and software, I evaluate how the VRET interface covertly structures the subject’s ideological relation towards the world. Drawing from theorists such as Martin Heidegger, Rey Chow, and Wendy Chun, I interrogate the politics at stake in the model of healing advanced by VRET.
Sasha Crawford-Holland earned his BA (Hon.) from McGill University, where his research focused on documentary politics and cinematic representations of historical violence. He has worked at Berlin’s Deutsche Kinemathek film archive, as a research assistant at McGill’s Department of English, and in educational programming at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Sasha is entering his MA in Cinema & Media Studies at the University of Southern California in Fall 2016.
Lifted: Intertextual Meaning and/as Spatial Narrative in Thirty Flights of Loving
Miguel Penabella (UC Santa Barbara Film and Media Studies)
In recent years, the proliferation of explorable videogame spaces has inspired discourse in textual analysis and art history. Game spaces can most effectively be examined in terms of intertextual citations that act upon the subject when confronted with meaningful imagery, and our understanding of videogames are tied to the subject’s relationship within any given ludic space.
To examine how intertextual citations reframe our experience of game spaces, I turn to Brendon Chung’s game Thirty Flights of Loving (2012). Chung deploys numerous textual fragments and references lifted from other works including the films of Wong Kar-wai and a demonstration of Bernoulli’s Principle. This strategy both supplements players’ deep-rooted assumptions about videogame narrative and destabilizes and subverts this familiarity, proposing a fresh approach to spatial storytelling and interaction. In this project, I investigate two complimentary theoretical concepts to closely read this game. The first is Michael Nitsche’s evocative narrative elements, and the second is Henry Jenkins’s conception of evocative spaces and embedded narrative. I propose that Thirty Flights of Loving weaves dense intertextual threads to imbue significance to coded objects by virtue of their presence within the game space, thus prompting an inquisitive and interpretative mode of play. My approach to analyzing the self-proclaimed “first-person shooter” reveals how the game sabotages prototypical assumptions of the ludic subject. I propose frameworks for mediating intertextual citations in videogames, placing Thirty Flights of Loving within a broader discourse on media history and theory to shed light on how games can reward cultural literacy and the experiences that individual players bring to games.
Miguel Penabella is a MA/PhD student in Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He received his BA with highest honors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Comparative Literature and Communication Studies. His undergraduate thesis examined the complex effects of temporality on narrative, national identity, and spectatorship in the films of Abbas Kiarostami, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, and Nagisa Oshima. He is also interested in theorizations of slowness in cinema, historical memory, and the relationship of politics and style in global art cinema. In addition to his formal education in film, he has a background in theorizing videogame narrative, having published criticism everywhere from UC Berkeley to Playboy Magazine.
Neverending Nightmares and the Epistemology of Mental Illness and Horror Gaming
Genevieve Newman (USC Cinema and Media Studies)
Matt Gilgenbach’s Neverending Nightmares is not for the fainthearted. This is in part because of the intensely personal nature of the game’s roots and execution to Gilgenbach. In an interview with Polygon 1 , the game’s creator explained that the game is thematically, and in some cases visually, derived from his own struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and disturbing intrusive thoughts. Where many games can be described as phenomenologically significant in a broad sense, Neverending Nightmares additionally engages the player in lived experiences of mental illness, encouraging and at times demanding that the player empathize with the feeling of having of intrusive thoughts, contemplating self-mutilation, and the embodiment of self-harm. From the player’s perspective, this game may be even more unsettling than others of the genre (including the Silent Hill, and Five Nights at Freddy’s franchises and stand-alone games like Layers of Fear) precisely because of its formal and narrative embrace of embodied mental illness. Whereas PT (2014) and Layers of Fear (2016) rely on voiceover and flashes of evocative imagery to suggest that the player/protagonist is mentally ill, with each games’ horror located separately from this character development, Neverending Nightmares breaks with indie horror game conventions and the mental illness becomes central to every part of this game. This presentation seeks to examine the ways in which play, defined both in conventional terms and as a specifically affective engagement, allows creators to express otherwise invisible disabilities and for the player to experience embody those disabilities to a limited degree in order to foster understanding and destigmatization.
Geneveive Newman a recent alumna of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts MA program in Cinema and Media Studies. Her research interests include decolonial and Third Cinema, horror and science fiction media, transnational Irish cultural production, and critical cultural studies. As an independent scholar, her current research focuses on marginalization, decolonialism, and formal experimentation in horror media and literature.
The Question of the Subject in Times of the Quantified Self
Nelesi Rodriguez (The New School)
Digital selftracking is a contemporary phenomenon that started to make waves around 2007 and almost ten years later is reaching its climax. It consists in using digital devices to monitor some aspect(s) of one’s life –from sleep, geographical movements, and exercise routines, to emotions and even sex performance– in order to understand and improve oneself. The Quantified Self (QS) is the default name journalists use to refer to these practices, even when the QS community is only a subgroup of selftrackers –one that is guided by the motto “selfknowledge through numbers”. The range of practices that today fall under the category of digital selftracking is very wide, however, all of them usually share essential elements: they use digital technologies to do some type of monitoring of the self, most of the data is gathered through bodily indicators, and they tend to have a quantitative focus –if not in the nature of the data collected, in its aggregation and presentation.
The paradox is that digital selftracking is becoming a cultural phenomenon precisely when concepts of humanity and self are being called into question (Braidotti, Pettman, Esposito, Haraway, Stiegler). In this presentation, I attempt to explain the growing popularity of digital selftracking by applying three theories that problematize the concept of the subject –Michel Foucault’s, Vilém Flusser’s, and Bernard Stiegler’s. I also examine how specific selftracking practices can be analyzed as tangible examples of the abstract strategies to deal with the contemporary crisis of the subject proposed by these authors. Finally, I conclude by trying to resituate digital selftracking in the context of the anthropocene, the posthuman, and the inhuman.
Nelesi Rodriguez is a Venezuelan born media researcher, educator, and practitioner. She recently received her Masters Degree in Media Studies from The New School. Her work focuses on identity and self, and how concepts of both interact with digital technologies. She is also interested in critical pedagogy and the use of art as media and research method. She is the recipient of multiple grants and awards; including a Fulbright Foreign Student Program Grant, a Vera List New School Art Collection Writing Award, and a Robert Youngson Award. Her work has been showcased in NYC, Buenos Aires, and Guatemala City.
The Dancer and the Drone (Pilot), or, How to Play the Cloud
Kareem Estefan (Brown University Modern Culture and Media)
Since “the cloud” entered the popular imagination as a shorthand for the immaterial site where our data resides, artists, activists, and scholars have sought to expose the social relations and material infrastructures that undergird this nebulous image. Media archaeologists have explored the imbrication of communications networks with military infrastructure, the ecological damage resulting from media obsolescence and data server maintenance, and the violence and exploitation engendered by the demand for certain mineral resources critical to digital media. Artists like Trevor Paglen, Laura Poitras, and James Bridle, meanwhile, have found innovative means to visualize new modalities of power endemic to “the cloud,” such as mass surveillance and drone warfare. These varied projects share in common the aim to make visible what remains unseen, to expose what lies “offscreen,” to render transparent the opaque cloud.
Distinct from critical endeavors to expose the infrastructural, social, and political networks that comprise the cloud, recent works of video art by Hito Steyerl, Omer Fast, and Tyler Coburn demonstrate how contemporary modes of play—from video games to workplace therapy—offer tools with which to locate ourselves subjectively in the cloud. Steyerl’s Factory of the Sun (2015), for example, interpellates its viewers as players of a video game whose dance moves produce light that is either harnessed by Deutsche Bank, to accelerate high-frequency trading along fiber-optic cables, or released in ludic protest against the bank’s militarily enforced resource exploitation. Meanwhile, Coburn’s u (2014-2016) and Fast’s 5,000 Feet is the Best (2011) position its protagonists—monitors of a “smart city” and drone pilots, respectively—as subjects who therapeutically inhabit the roles of the objects they oversee to simulate the logic of “targeting” central to their jobs.
Drawing from the work of Alexander Galloway and McKenzie Wark on video games, I argue that these videos present “allegorithms”—that by learning the rules of the game, the player (viewer) comes to understand the simulation as an allegory for the cloud and its algorithmic logics. In so doing, I contend, they provide opportunities to understand the cloud not by exposing it as an ideology and tracing its material infrastructure as an antidote, but by playfully inhabiting its virtuality to locate critical subject-positions within the social and political networks it engenders.
Kareem Estefan is a PhD student in Brown University’s Modern Culture and Media department, where he researches contemporary visual culture and speculative fiction from the Middle East. He has written about contemporary art and cultural activism for magazines and journals such as Art in America, BOMB, Creative Time Reports, Ibraaz, and The New Inquiry, among others, and is currently co-editing an anthology of artists’ and scholars’ writings on cultural boycotts, which will be published by OR Books in association with the New School’s Vera List Center for Art and Politics. He holds an MFA in Art Criticism and Writing from the School of Visual Arts and a BA in Comparative Literature from New York University.
Dangerous Migrant and Refugee Technologies: Mapping Time and Space Narratives
Michael Turcios (USC Cinema and Media Studies)
The current global displacement of people via forced migration and an ever-growing refugee crisis reveals some crucial information about displacement due in part to migrants and refugees utilizing mobile devices as they travel to northern territories. Whereas in developed nations smartphones are used for “play,” migrants and refugees value them as lifelines.
This paper explores the ways in which scholars, activists, and critics are examining the ways migrants and refugees use mobile technologies as a practice of mapping out time and space. Attention is focused to migrants and refugees originating from Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) who trek to North America (Mexico and the United States). These critics are monitoring how Latin American migrants and refugees are using technology to navigate foreign territory by connecting to their devices along the way; thus leaving their physical and digital footprints open to analysis. When checking in on social media, migrants and refugees document their experiences and update their acquaintances of their progress. Their online interactivity thus becomes a practice that narrates time and space.
As these subjects advance in their migration, their use of technology demands critical attention. For example, some migrants snap selfies as a method of recording time, space, and living condition. Others use video recording technologies to document harrowing journeys through unknown geographies as they describe the landscape and situation of the migrants. Some of the questions addressed in this paper include: How do migrants create an itinerary in using chat forums? How might this use of technology inform new ways of helping migrants bypass regions under corrupt control? Is information about time and space accurate when connectivity in certain spaces is unreliable? Is using mobile technologies a form of dangerous play that exposes migrants to extortion if their devices fall into the wrong hands?
Michael Anthony Turcios is a PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California. Turcios’ research explores the cultural works of Los Angeles and Paris, France that address migration, militarization, and “third” borders. Turcios is an ardent activist against gentrification and is interested in urban architecture, historical space, and Chicana/o murals.
“The Way Movies Are Meant to be Seen:” Media Convergence and Fan Professionalization in Turner Classic Movies
Anne Kelly (USC Cinema and Media Studies)
When discussing the relationship between media distributors and audiences, often arguments fall into one of two modes of inquiry: the industry studies model, or audience studies. However, the division between these two areas of analysis ignores the purposeful cultivation of fan communities. In this post-TV landscape, television channels such as Turner Classic Movies have sought to rebrand themselves in order to profit from and promote fan engagement.
This paper will interrogate Turner Classic Movies’s growth from movie-distribution television channel to multimedia brand. Using trade paper archives, Time Warner annual reports, and social media data provided by TCM and Union Metrics, I will explore the various extra ways TCM sells its brand through platforms of fan engagement. A closer examination of Turner Classic Movies reveals that it is a brand that markets through the contradictions of the media convergence and fan interactivity.
Recently, TCM has marketed itself by creating spaces for fan play. These spaces can be physical such as the Hollywood TCM Film Festival, or digital like the fan-run #TCMParty Twitter hashtag, or even on the channel itself through fan-led programming. TCM applies industrya “insider” rhetoric to spaces and activities normally dominated by fans: an exclusive Film Festival serves as a vacation spot; fan trivia becomes a chance to guest-program, the fan forum (called The Backlot) gives access to TCM’s “insider” archive.
By analyzing TCM’s fan interactions through Bernd Schmitt’s Experiential Marketing model, I seek to complicate current scholarly dialog surrounding fan studies through marketing and industry studies. While scholars like Andrejevic argue that fan activity is unpaid labor, I argue that by creating these digital and physical spaces of interaction, TCM actually sells fan play to fans as professional labor. TCM’s redefinition of the “professional” as a marketing strategy opens new questions for the line between play, work, and commoditization of labor in the digital era.
Anne Marie Kelly is a Masters Candidate at the Bryan Singer Division of Cinema and Media Studies at University of Southern California. She previously worked in film sound restoration with 20th Century Fox and Sony Music for Deluxe Media. She is a Research Intern at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Visual Oral History Archive, and has upcoming publications in Film and History and The Cine-Files. Anne is a 2016-2017 USC Annenberg Fellow. Her research focuses are digital archiving theory and film restoration praxes, as well as the intersection between technology and aesthetics.
Survivor and Edgic: Online Fan Communities and the Pleasure of Statistical Narrativity
Jon Cicoski (USC Cinema and Media Studies)
When CBS’s reality juggernaut Survivor premiered in May 2000, audiences quickly congregated across the Internet to discuss, analyze, and predict the possible results of the show’s competition. The largest of those sites, Survivor Sucks, became the major hub for fan discourse. Within the first few seasons of the show’s run, members of that community posited that the program was edited not unlike fictional shows across television; from this, they developed a statistical methodology to better analyze the show’s editing patterns. They named their analytic system Edgic, a portmanteau of the words “editing” and “logic.” Each episode, contestants are scored across three categories: rating, tone, and visibility. These scores are gathered in order to situate each individual’s edit across, in order to best parse out the season’s eventual winner. These ratings and predictions take into account narrative trends across the show’s thirty-two season run.
Edgic opens up multiple avenues for fan studies in the digital age. As a discursive act, Edgic is representative of what Henry Jenkins calls “collective intelligence.” Indeed, the pleasure of the fan practice is born of the communal discourse that comes with dissecting the show’s edit. What is particularly evocative about this communal discourse is that the fan derives its pleasure from an analytic approach to narrative comprehension. This project notates the limits and potentialities of this approach to narrative pleasure, what I call statistical narrativity. This practice exemplifies the blurred lines between pleasure and labor that has been the topic of digital media and fan studies for the better part of a decade. Additionally, Edgic as a methodology remains contested and controversial within the Survivor fan community. It this intersection of tensions, between pleasure, labor, analytics, and dramatic storytelling, that makes Edgic a subject worth further investigation.
Jonathan Cicoski is a Masters Student in the Bryan Singer Division of Cinema & Media Studies at the University of Southern California. He has recent publications in Gender Forum and in media res. His research interests are in American cinema, film exhibition, queer sociality and queer spatiality.
The Ghostly Black Box: Modding as Resistance
Chaeyoon Yoo (UC Irvine Visual Studies)
Previous studies have highlighted the practice of game modding as occupying the grey area between participatory culture and immaterial labor. Research on the relationship between modding communities and the game industry have shown how modding is not only empowering but also aligns with the commercial agenda of the game industry via functioning as a type of ‘playbour.’ Moving beyond the analysis of modding with an emphasis on its political economy, this essay attempts to investigate the resistive potential of modding as a cultural phenomenon.
With a focus on its resistive qualities, the essay undertakes an evaluation of various game mods, including those of StarCraft, Civilization, and Minecraft, and the activity of modding in order to shed light on the ‘black box’ nature of the politics of modding. In doing so, it takes into account preexisting discourses on the political economy of modding (how the practice of modding is neither fully rooted in participatory culture nor neo-Marxist critiques of immaterial labor) and attempts to excavate the peculiar position between metaphor and practice that modding occupies.
The essay examines mods in three broad categories of a metaphor (a disruption of a procedural model of the real world), practice (physical alteration of an algorithm), and a ‘black-box’ (half-real and half-imaginary) that occupies the middle-ground between the previous two. Ultimately, the essay discusses how political resistance in context of game mods is defined through a scale model that not only simulates but also adapts and re-contextualizes the systems of political resistance in real-life to an invisible form. The conspicuous metaphor of political resistance ironically fades away during practice, the actual implementation of the metaphor, adopting the form of a ghost.
Bio: I am a PhD student in the Visual Studies program at UC Irvine. My research interests are somewhere between the intersections of new media art, game studies, East Asian art, and affect and embodiment. Currently I am working on my MA paper that attempts to contextualize the relationship between academic discourses on interactive artworks and the kind of politics which it espouses.
Technocultural Citizenship and Counterpublicity: Player Agency and Worldmaking in Queer Video Game Spaces
Mary Michael (USC Cinema and Media Studies)
Queer spaces in video games are often thought of as spaces within a game in which queer characters, relationships, or sex exist (Consalvo 2003). However, discussions of such queer spaces tend to be limited to game content, failing to include accounts of the queer potential of the game space itself- that is, its design, operation or navigation, and experience – as it is encountered through play. This failure is further demonstrated in the separation of scholarly work on game spaces from work on queerness in games. Drawing upon José Esteban Muñoz’s discussion of queer horizons and potentialities (2009), as well as a reframing of Janet Murray’s discussion of agency and authorship in virtual environments (1997), I argue that queer game spaces are not marked exclusively by the presence of queer representation or content, but rather can be identified by the queered sense of player agency that these spaces allow for constructing queer futurities, specifically in terms of programming and playing queer counterpublics in gaming discourse. The queer player agency made possible by queer game spaces suggests a notion of queer technocultural citizenship that extends from the simultaneous creation and play (or occupation) of agency in games to the creation and play (or occupation) of different understandings of equality in digital space. Such an understanding of queer game space is significant in that it highlights the problematic notions of equal or democratic play and participation usually associated with discussions of queer game content and digital spaces, while also emphasizing the potential of queer play and creation in queer counterpublics to initiate digital worldmaking as a new form of gendered, sexed political literacy.
Mary Michael is a first year M.A. student in the Cinema and Media Studies Program at USC. Her research interests include new and digital media, queer gaming, theorizations of video game design, and queer theory. She plans to pursue her Ph.D. in media studies and enter academia to continue to research video games and challenge pedagogies of digital media.
Playing Roles: Games as Sites of Identificatory Performance
Matt Knutson (UC Irvine Visual Studies)
As Wendy Chun and others have noted, early software developers on FORTRAN took chauvinistic pride in their command of code, manipulating computer language in a kind of technological ritual that produced results apparently magical from the outside. Despite coding’s feminine beginnings, the profession soon experienced a masculine takeover that has persisted to the present. Most of today’s AAA games can be read in this context, and one may connect hegemonic masculinity in computer science to hypermasculinity and patriarchal gender tropes in the content of industry games. While this approach attempts to connect games’ development their final product, one issue it must contend with is how to uncover what exactly transpires between coding inputs and software outputs. This middle step can be difficult to recover in the context of multi-hundred person development teams, publisher oversight of creative decisions, trade secrets, and other complicating factors.
But some games such as Zachtronic’s TIS-100 actually foreground the creation and execution of code as gameplay itself, thereby revealing part of the magic of code’s transformation of input to output. TIS-100 presents itself as a forgotten 1970s platform with idiosyncratic coding structure, offering tasks to the player to complete by manipulating a short list of in-game commands. Each task constitutes a puzzle, and the austerely presented game requires methodical problem-solving while refusing to aid struggling players. In other words, the game offers its player a more hardcore experience than even the “hardcore” game scene.
This paper looks at TIS-100 as both a ludic performance of coding and, moreover, as a performance of gender within the context of a hegemonically masculine games industry. The paper pursues inquiries such as how software compels player performance, how coding itself reproduces gender roles, and how critical inquiry can discover the apparently magical transmutation of executable code into cultural object.
Matt Knutson is a second-year PhD student in Visual Studies at the University of California, Irvine. His research focuses on the politics of digital expression, the temporality of new media, and optimization of play in esports.
A Recent Herstory of Disembodied Voices
Hsinyu Lin (UCLA Design Media Arts)
While HAL, the iconic A.I. from 2001: A Space Odyssey may have been identified as speaking through a male voice, most virtual assistants embedded in our everyday life tends to speak through female voices. From airplane cockpits to voicemail systems to GPS devices to smartphones, A Recent Herstory of Disembodied Voices analyzes speech synthesis from an intersectional feminist lens. By searching for the narrative threads within various synthesized speeches, the presentation aims to create a comparative analysis on the various gender, sexual and racial stereotyping mediated by both science fictions and technologies.
In both cases of airplane cockpits and GPS devices, the female “characters” play the role of the navigator, working to guide the users to the next unknown adventure. Patient, caring, and playful, Siri goes beyond the pragmatic and fulfills the role of a secretary. Synthesized speakers “role play” in real lives, blurring the line between the virtual and the physical. Some researchers have declared that female voices are biologically more pleasing than male voices while silicon valley executives claimed that 2001: A Space Odyssey had made such a great cultural influence that any male synthesized speech would trigger deep irrational fear in the user. The presentation works to challenge these research and narrative in search of a more ethical world of technologies.
Hsinyu Lin is an artist who studies the modes by which internet shape and gets shaped by social, cultural, economic, and political dynamics. She is the cofounder of voidLab, a female artist collective that uses new media technologies as a mean to explore current social issues. She is a graduate student at UCLA Design | Media Arts.